TLP’s political future

Updated December 02, 2018


The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

SOME interesting disclaimers were circulating on social media after the security forces’ recent crackdown on the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) activists in Punjab. These were clippings of print media advertisements, attributed to some TLP members, through which they dissociated themselves from the group and requested the security agencies to not ‘trouble’ them. These disclaimers — coupled with the way the TLP melted away — gave the impression that the ‘TLP movement’ was merely a bubble.

But what about the over two million votes the group secured during the 2018 general elections? That electoral success can be explained in different ways — such as a Barelvi ‘awakening’ in the country, or the personal charisma of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who along with other TLP leaders was booked on treason and terrorism charges on Saturday. Put together, the personality cult of Rizvi — or Babaji as he is known amongst his followers — is certainly inspiring the Barelvis. However, many amongst his past and present aides doubt that the group will have a future after Rizvi.

It was the firebrand Rizvi who exploited recent sociopolitical events to sensitise the Barelvi sentiment that eventually accrued to the political account of the TLP in the last general elections. A few claim that the TLP is nothing more than a group of ambitious clerics who have been in search of a miraculous success for several years. Some amongst those who believe that the TLP bubble has burst put the entire blame on Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, who has a background of similar ambition.

Barelvi parties have remained divided and their strength has fragmented over the last three decades.

Qadri caught the attention of the local media in May 1998, when he parted ways with a leading Barelvi party, the Jamaat-i-Ahle Sunnat and formed his own party, the Aalmi Tanzeem-i-Ahle Sunnat (ATAS), or the International Organisation of Ahle Sunnat, with the objective of exerting pressure on the government to implement the Nizam-i-Mustafa. It was a time when former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif was struggling to save his government and wanted to pass a bill to amend the Constitution, which would allow him to gain more authority.

While a lot of debate was going on in public and on the media on the amendment bill, Qadri set up camp in front of GHQ on Oct 12, 1999, demanding that the military take over and enforce Sharia in the country. He argued that Prime Minister Sharif and parliament were unable to achieve this. He was not as popular then, with the support of less than 100 people. When the military coup occurred, Qadri’s camp was also cleared and he was imprisoned for four months along with several of his followers.

One key point on the agenda of Qadri’s ATAS was the continuous demand for the establishment of Nizam-i-Mustafa. It read like this: “Every Friday at 9:30am, members must demonstrate silently, holding placards with the statement: ‘Oh rulers, impose Nizam-i-Mustafa on yourselves and Pakistan’.” However, the organisation failed to implement its programme because of a lack of human resource.

Qadri also wanted to outclass Deobandis in the field of jihad and had formed the Lashkar-i-Ahle Sunnat with the objective of establishing an ‘Islamic order’. In view of the state’s increasing clampdown on militant groups, he later abandoned the group, but continued pursuing his sectarian agenda. Not even his own close aides expected him to garner such a large support base, until his sectarian rhetoric connected with the Aasia Bibi case.

On the other side, Khadim Rizvi was a prayer leader at a mosque located near Data Darbar in Lahore. As the mosque belonged to the Punjab’s government’s Auqaf department, and he was an officially appointed imam, Rizvi was supposed to not indulge in hate speech against any sect, and particularly not against the state. He was thus careful in his sermons. But when he was contacted to lead the funeral prayers of former governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer — who was assassinated by his security guard for requesting pardon for Aasia Bibi — Rizvi refused. This proved a real turning point in his life. He decided to form his own party to defend the constitutional clauses related to the blasphemy law.

What brings Qadri and Rizvi together is a common cause. Rizvi did not have the experience to run an organisation and Qadri lacked motivational charisma. Some party insiders claim that both consider themselves to be the real architects of the TLP and each wants to seize authority of the group. A group led by Allama Ashraf Jalali has already parted ways with the group, so both realise that a new division within the party could severely damage it. However, a few close aides of Rizvi do not rule out the possibility of the split after Qadri’s furious speeches against the military and judicial heads. The recent crackdown can speed up the process of the split.

Barelvi parties have remained divided and their strength has fragmented over the last three decades. It was hoped by some that the TLP would unite Barelvis politically. But as Rizvi and Qadri were politically ‘too ambitious’, they decided to take a solo flight.

Read: Rise of Barelvi activism

For instance, though the TLP and Tahirul Qadri’s Minhajul Quran cannot be compared in terms of objectives and vision, the leadership of both parties had the opportunity to combine the strengths of Barelvis, which they failed to seize.

The most important lesson that Barelvi parties have learned in recent years — an example for other religious and sectarian parties — is that while a sole cause or event can trigger a ‘movement’ of sorts, it cannot nurture a sustainable political party. Many believe that the final verdict in the Aasia Bibi case has completed the cycle of the process that started with the beginning of the case, and that took many lives, gave birth to a new extremist movement and caused political chaos. Now that the cycle has been completed, the TLP will have to create avenues to sustain the momentum of their ‘movement’. Of course, this will also depend on the state’s behaviour in dealing with the group. History suggests a softer approach would certainly boost the confidence of the new radicals of the country.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2018